Nothing Personal

I don’t know Geoffrey Sirc.  I have met him, I think, but that’s about it.  The only other thing of his I have read (other than the essay that is the topic of this CCCarnival, his CCC article “Resisting Entropy”) is his contribution to the Wysocki et al collection, “Box Logic.” I have always thought it was a so-so piece, though my students tend to like it a lot more than I do.  By the way, it’s interesting as I look back at that 2004 essay and read the opening sentences:  “Let me confess: it has been a frustrating last several years for me in my writing courses. The rapid advance of technology has meant a pedagogical dilemma for me: just what do I do in the classroom, what do I teach?”

And I haven’t read any of the books he is reviewing in this essay.  I at least own Hawk’s book and I suspect I would agree with Sirc’s review of Shipka’s book, though I also suspect I would like Miller’s book and, if I was a WPA, I might look to the Harris et al book for some ideas.  My own limitations thus make it difficult for me to evaluate the quality of Sirc’s review in relation to what he’s reviewing.  But it seems to me that this is such an odd and provocative essay because it’s only partially a review.  The rest of it is something else.  He writes in the opening paragraph:

On a personal, practitioner level, one always wishes for more sustained wonderfulness in the work of one’s students and so turns  to the classroom credos others have formed as a result of their own sustained  practice in the field, looking hungrily for inspiration from their pedagogy. On  the professional level, especially after doing historical scholarship and seeing,  shockingly revealed, a recursive, abysmal spiral of the same essay-based pedagogy from the field’s origin onward, one can’t but wonder why the field on the  whole seems so stunted and contrary and so looks for illuminating answers in  how others have surveyed and interpreted the field, finding, perhaps, hidden  avenues leading out of otherwise dead ends from the patient reconsideration of roads taken and not.

As I think about this passage and the one I quote from eight years earlier, it seems to me that Sirc has, for lack of a better way of putting it, made up his mind some time ago on these matters.  Which, I suppose, is its own form of entropy.

The most problematic part of this review for me is the way that Sirc just hammers Thomas Miller for his book The Evolution of College English:  Literacy Studies from the Puritans to the Postmoderns.  Like I said, I haven’t read it, though with final chapter titles like “At the Ends of the Profession” and “Conclusion:  Why the Pragmatics of Literacy Are Critical,” I can kind of imagine why Sirc is less than impressed.  There’s a long passage on page 510 where Sirc, foaming at the mouth a bit, takes up the value of Henry James (who I personally could never actually read when I was a student and who I have not been moved to return to either), New Criticism, Wordsworth, and all things literary.  Sirc concludes this passage:  “Part of refiguring English studies means rethinking composition’s sniffy attitude toward literariness; it means our subfield’s reimagining literature as a cultural value and practice, refiguring how it fits in a first-year course centered around writing.”

I hear echoes of this conversation from a week or so ago here, and my basic response is the same.  It’s not that literature cannot be an engaging part of a first year writing course; it’s just that a first year writing course shouldn’t be about literature, and it turns out there are a lot of texts and subjects and ideas that can ennoble and enrich students’ minds and souls other than literature.  I majored in English and then I was in a creative writing program where the goal was making literary art, so this idea that there was something besides literature that could be of cultural value took me a while to accept. And from a more pragmatic point of view, if you want to make first year college students hate all things literary, make them read and write about The Ambassadors.

Now, I do think revisiting the history of the field ala Hawk and others is useful, and I can see Shipka’s assignments and alternative approaches to writing as provocative and engaging.  I also think these things are happening in lots of writing classes right now.  Or at least they are happening along side uninspiring and regressive pedagogy, which is one of the long-standing problems of our field:  the teacher who believes in students making objects as research projects works right along side the teacher who feels the five paragraph structure is critical and who is a stickler for the use of who versus whom.

Then again, I wonder about Sirc’s response to Harris, Miles, and Paine’s book.  He seems particularly critical of their grading rubric language, which I agree does come across as a bit robotic.  Sirc writes:

Let’s please end the sham of this all-too-common editorial board/peer review practice: I’ve received good feedback from editors, but never such that I radically rethought a piece or even did more than tweak. More often, I’ve received  misguided, even atrocious editorial advice. Outside feedback never really enters  into what I’m doing. James writes to Wells in 1902: “certainly I shall not again  draw up detailed & explicit plans for unconvinced & ungracious editors. . . .  A plan for myself, as copious and developed as possible I always do draw up”  (Horne 376). Peer response remains popular, I suspect, because a certain fiction  of audience is easily teachable and helps reduce the complexity of creation into  a simplified sort of flow chart—do X to cue Y in your reader, do Z to give your writing authority. My students are taking a class with me; one of the benefits is  that they get to have an ongoing conversation about their writing with someone  who knows something about writing, who can help coach their work, identify  strengths and weaknesses. The thought of blowing off a class in a coffee shop,  listening to students’ pleasant, phatic comments on their assignments, would make me wonder if the whole thing was worth it.

It seems to me there is a space between valuing useful feedback and ignoring editorial response because the author knows best, between believing that as the teacher you are The Expert and turning over the whole enterprise to the students to sort out for themselves.  In my own growth as a writer, particularly as a fiction writer, peer review was critical.  I learned from the feedback of others of course, but I also learned a lot about myself in learning how to give others feedback on their writing.  So when I teach peer review in writing classes, I’m not trying to get the students to do the work for me– though when peer review works (and I will be the first to admit it often does not work well in first year writing classes), it does help.  Rather, I’m trying to teach students about the process of peer review and how it helps to both give and to receive feedback on writing in order to become a better writer.

And besides all that, my guess (again, I haven’t read it) is Harris, Miller, and Paine have written/edited a book useful in addressing the extremely practical and real conditions inherent in first year writing programs.  These are mandatory courses taught to very inexperienced students who frequently come into college with extraordinarily inaccurate ideas about learning let alone writing, and taught by comparatively inexperienced teachers who are rarely familiar with the scholarly and theoretical discussions of the field.  At any decent-sized university, we teach a couple hundred of these classes a year, all of which (in theory) are supposed to be meeting common outcomes and goals, all of which (again, in theory) under the guidance/direction of professionals who occupy that weird institutional space between “professor” and “administrator,” the WPA.  And despite (or maybe because) of its service/quasi-janitorial space on the academic food chain, it is a course that others at the university see as enormously important, especially when it comes to fixing the problems of students’ writing in other courses.  That, I assume, is the real world context and purpose behind Teaching with Student Texts.  So, given that Sirc is a critic of this institutional function of first year writing in the first place, it is probably not that surprising that he’s not a fan.

Like I said, I haven’t read these books and and I don’t know Sirc.  But by the end of this essay, I feel like I know a lot more about him than I do about the books he reviewed.

5 thoughts on “Nothing Personal”

  1. Sirc is also the author of “Composition as a Happening” (not sure if I can use html in the comments). As you know, he belongs to a particular school of composition–when I read the original review essay, it made me want to run out and map the field, visually, with lines connection the different camps, such as Historicists, Post-Processors, Duchampians, Nerds, etc.

  2. I’ll vouch for Harris and company’s book: It’s a mixed bag, surely, but that’s true of most edited collections. But a book on the topic, I think, is overdue, and most of the selections I read from it seemed even-handed and valuable. I like Bruce Horner’s essay on “Re-Valuing Student Writing” especially. You might keep your eyes peeled for Harris’s forthcoming essay “Using Student Texts in Composition Scholarship,” which will be in the Watson Conference issue of JAC. I think it’s a pretty interesting and important piece.

    As for Sirc … I’ve always had the impression that he’s a very bright guy, but just not on my wavelength. I read the “box logic” piece and responded with the curmudgeonly epitaph that’s really better suited to people three times my age (though I say it a lot anyway): “What’s this got to do with rhetoric and writing?!” Relevant to invention, I guess, but meh.

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